As the state appellate defender, Michael J. Pelletier hears questions about why he represents guilty defendants.
"I don't know that they're guilty," Pelletier said. "We look to see that the state met its burden."
Forty years ago this month, the Office of the State Appellate Defender opened to represent convicted criminals to try to get them new trials or persuade reviewing courts to throw out the key evidence used against them.
The Illinois General Assembly created the office when federal funds expired for the Illinois Defender Project, a program that lasted three years.
"You had a lot of counties that didn't have the resources and they didn't have attorneys that had criminal experience or appellate experience," Pelletier said. "It was very clear to counties and the court system that we should exist as a state agency."
After its first year, the office employed 39 lawyers, 40 support staff and kept a budget that didn't exceed $2 million. Today, the office runs as a $21 million operation with 173 attorneys and 63 support staff who handle about 4,800 cases.
Even though the office has existed for four decades, it's only featured two leaders.
Pelletier is in his second four-year term as appellate defender, a position that the Illinois Supreme Court appoints. In 2007, Pelletier replaced Ted Gottfried, who ran the office from 1972 to 2007.
"I always thought criminal law was more interesting," Gottfried said. "They don't have television shows about a real estate closing."
Before he joined the office, Gottfried worked as a Cook County assistant public defender.
"I liked the idea of being on the defense. It's certainly sort of the underdog situation. And appellate courts have the role of deciding if there were errors and act as sort of a guardian for the whole justice system. You need somebody on both sides," Gottfried said.
Pelletier estimates that his office handles 90 percent of the criminal appeals in the state court system. In the 1st District Appellate Court, which reviews Cook County trials, it's rare that private attorneys represent criminal defendants.
"It's really easy for people to view us as hired guns (and say), 'You're just looking to get people off. You have no ethics. You don't care.' That's not true," Pelletier said.
In about 10 percent of cases, Pelletier said, assistant appellate defenders withdraw because the trial presented no errors or other reasons to seek a new trial.
The state appellate defender maintains offices in Chicago, Elgin, Ottawa, Springfield and Mount Vernon so it covers all five appellate court districts. Because many clients live in prisons throughout the state, the assistant appellate defenders can't always meet them.
"We arrange a phone call, so everyone has an obligation to at least talk to the client before or at the time of filing a brief to get the client's input. In some district offices, they're close enough to visit clients," Pelletier said.
Warren D. Wolfson, a former appellate court justice who now works as a distinguished visiting professor at DePaul University College of Law, said the office attorneys know "what it takes to get a reversal" of a verdict.
"I always was very favorably impressed with them. They're a bunch of dedicated, hardworking people — underpaid, overworked, devoting themselves to the rule of law and defending the people who can't defend themselves. They really have played an important role in the administration of justice in the state," Wolfson said.
Assistant appellate defenders typically work on the oldest cases that are pending in the office regardless of the prison sentence length.
"If you like research and writing, appellate advocacy," Pelletier said, "this is the place to be."